Ma Po Tofu is a beloved dish of Chinese cuisine, hailing from the Sichuan province – perhaps the original home of worldwide hot and spicy cuisine! 🙂 It was also one of the favorite dishes of Mao Zedong, who was addicted to spicy foods from both Sichuan and Hunan provinces.
Ma Po Tofu (Pronounced Dofu in Mandarin) actually means “Pockmarked Old Woman Tofu” and people are unsure how it actually got this unusual name.
The name is not only unusual, but more than a bit politically incorrect as well. “Po” means “old lady”, in the often disparaging context of how many western men sometimes refer to their wives. “Ma Po” is said to refer to a restaurant run by a woman of the Ma (or Mah) family, who had a pockmarked face after surviving Smallpox. She supposedly invented this dish and it became an instant classic – true or not, the dish is a hallmark of true Sichuanese cooking, combining not just spicy heat, but a strong numbing flavor from the liberal use of Sichuan Peppercorns.
I’ve added additional depth of flavor by using mashed Chinese fermented black beans, which are delicious and add a strong umami component to the dish. This recipe has multiple layers of flavor (a signature of many Hirshon-labeled recipes, BTW) and will blow away the pale imitations of this dish served in most Chinese restaurants outside of Sichuan.
The use of pickled vegetables, sesame oil, sweetened black vinegar and other flavors balances the whole dish out. Ground beef ( a rare ingredient in Chinese cuisine, beef recipes are very rarely seen outside of Sichuan) adds the final protein-laden touch (you can skip it if you’re vegetarian, but the dish traditionally does include it).
I hope you enjoy my version of the recipe, Citizens! 😀
Battle on – The Generalissimo
½ pound ground beef (leave out if you want to make this vegetarian)
2 Tbsp soy sauce
Pinch of cornstarch
Pinch of Chinese Five Spice
1 tablespoon Korean Kochujang hot pepper paste or hot Szechuan bean paste (dòubànjiàng) (豆瓣酱) – worst case, try using some form of hot chili paste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon pureed or very finely minced ginger
1 Tbsp peanut oil
2 Tbsp hot chili oil
2 Tbsp black beans, mashed to a paste after having been rinsed
¾ pound extra-firm tofu, chopped into small cubes
4-5 tien tsin peppers, sliced (or use fresh red Fresno chiles)
2 Tbsp. finely chopped Sichuan Preserved Vegetable, previously washed (or use a good spicy dill pickle instead, if unavailable)
1 Tbsp chicken stock
1 Tbsp Shaoxing wine (or use dry sherry)
1 teaspoon Chinese sweetened black vinegar (or balsamic, if unavailable)
1 teaspoon sesame oil (Kadoya brand preferred)
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns, lightly toasted and then ground (use more if you like the “ma” numbing effect)
5 green onions, sliced thinly crosswise, white and light green part only
Take the beef and mix it with the soy sauce, cornstarch, and Five Spice powder. Let sit at least 20 minutes (can refrigerate overnight).
Heat wok to high heat. Add the peanut oil. When it shimmers, add the chili paste and garlic. Fry about 30 seconds until it releases its smell.
Add the beef and cook thoroughly. Drop heat to medium and add the bean sauce, the peppers and the tofu. Cook about 8 minutes until the tofu picks up some color.
Add broth, wine, vinegar, ginger, garlic, preserved vegetable, chili oil, sesame oil and the ground peppercorns and then stir well.
Adjust heat to taste with more chili oil, if desired. Add green onions. Serve over rice to absorb sauce, if desired.